The superbug MRSA has become resistant to common antibiotics © PA Images
The superbug MRSA has become resistant to common antibiotics © PA Images

UK supermarkets reveal antibiotics use

5 January 2018

Three UK supermarket chains have published figures on the amount of antibiotics used by their farm suppliers, in an effort to cut their use.

Supermarkets have been under mounting pressure from campaign groups to reveal how much antibiotic drugs are used in their products.

Antibiotics in the UK and Europe are routinely used to treat infections in livestock, dairy and fish farming. Supermarkets follow industry standards set by the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance, which represents organisations involved in the food chain.

However, overuse of antibiotics can cause drug resistance, leading to the prevalence of superbugs and in October, Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer, warned that if antibiotics lost their effectiveness it would “spell the end to modern medicine”. 

In response to consumer fears, Marks and Spencer, Waitrose and Asda all revealed the quantities of antibiotics used by farms in their supply chain.

The campaign group, the Alliance To Save Our Antibiotics, founded by charities Sustain, Compassion in World Farming and the Soil Association, welcomed the move.

Coilin Nunan, scientific advisor to the Alliance, urged other supermarkets to follow their lead.

“The publication of this data should help drive average use across the farming industry down, as it illustrates the extent to which many other producers are still overusing antibiotics, despite recent cuts,” he said.

“We are also calling for all supermarkets to publish antibiotic-use data by farming system, so that consumers can compare free-range and organic farming with indoor farming and intensive systems.”

Figures from all three supermarket chains showed that they are ahead of industry-wide targets on chicken farms.

Nunan said that Marks and Spencer figures showed their pig and chicken farmers were using less than one quarter of the UK averages. 

He added that antibiotic use in Waitrose’s pig and chicken suppliers was about one third or less than industry averages and use in turkeys was about one sixth of the average.

Asda’s figures showed its suppliers’ usage was less than half the industry average for chickens, and for turkey it was less than a quarter, but their pig survey was still in progress, he said.

The UK Veterinary Antibiotics Resistance and Sales Surveillance Report 2016, released in October, showed sales of antibiotics for use in food-producing animals dropped by 27%, achieving a government-set target two years early. 

Last week, US hamburger chain Wendy's announced plans to cut the use of antibiotics from its beef supply in repsonse to concerns about resistance to drugs in humans.

Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Lidl and Aldi do not currently publish data on antibiotic use.

Lidl told the BBC that it was committed to meeting sector targets and fully supports the disclosure of antibiotic usage. “However, we believe that it is important to support suppliers through the development of a centralised, industry-wide approach,” the company said.

Morrisons said it was “open-minded” about publishing data and Tesco said it had a comprehensive plan to reduce antibiotic use, “including measuring and publishing progress against our commitments”. 

The British Retail Consortium, which represents the big UK supermarkets, said all its members advocated the responsible use of antibiotics and were working to reduce usage without any detrimental effect on animal welfare.

“All our member are collaborating with their suppliers to determine what data is available and the best way to communicate progress,” it said.

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